MADISON – The joyous, colorful, energetic and out-of-this-world spectacle of the circus can’t help but capture an artist’s imagination. That exuberance will take center ring in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art when it presents two circus-themed exhibitions: “Ringmaster: Judy Onofrio and the Art of the Circus,” and “Harry A. Atwell, Circus Photographer.” Both exhibitions will be on view through Sunday, June 29, and a special lineup of circus celebrations and performances is planned for Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10.

Fanciful, funny and colorful, Onofrio’s constructions are assembled from figures she’s carved and objects and eccentricities she’s collected. She uses fiberglass, beads, shards of ceramics and wood and creates life-sized sculptures of circus performers and animals. Onofrio has exhibited her works in museums nationally and internationally.

In “Ringmaster: Judy Onofrio and the Art of the Circus,” her pieces will be exhibited alongside banners, posters and wagon carvings from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. In addition, a documentary of the 1920s and 1930s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a filmed interview with Onofrio will be part of the exhibition.

“Onofrio captures the spirit of the circus in her art, the lure of the fantastic. Showing her work alongside promotional art – the carvings and banners – provides historical context,” says Cassie Wilkins, the show’s curator. “The artwork inspired by the circus celebrates bold colors, glitter and glamorous larger-than-life noncomformists.”

For another take on the circus, Wilkins has selected 42 photographs for the exhibition “Harry A. Atwell, Circus Photographer.” Atwell (1879-1957), a prominent Chicago publicity photographer, was hired for his first circus assignment around 1910 to travel with the Ringling Bros. Circus. Throughout the next 40 years, he documented the roustabouts, big-top crowds, sideshow performers and center-ring stars of the circus in a time when shops, schools and factories closed so people could enjoy the fleeting pageantry of the traveling shows. More than 5,000 Atwell negatives are now in the collection of the Circus World Museum.

“I’m excited about the collaboration with the Wisconsin Historical Society and being able to display some of the collection from the Circus World Museum. This is a chance to see this art in a new light. It was a difficult process to choose from such an extensive and amazing collection. Judy helped pick, too. And the photos were a labor-intensive process, from identifying the images to having them scanned and printed by the Wisconsin Historical Society’s digital imaging lab,” says Wilkins.

The Chazen has also planned celebrations, talks and events to complement the exhibitions that are worthy of the big top.

The celebrations are planned for May 9 and 10. On Friday, May 9, Onofrio will present a free talk about her sculptures and how the circus has been a lifelong source of inspiration for her artwork.

A Big Top Gala will take place after Onofrio’s talk from 7-9 p.m. The party will include aerial acrobats, contortionists, a circus band, strolling entertainers and circus treats. Tickets to the gala are $8 for museum members and $12 for nonmembers.

From noon-4 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, there will be a free family circus day. Activities and performances as well as the chance to try out circus acts will be part of the afternoon’s action. Children ages 4-12 should be accompanied by an adult.  

Other programming related to the exhibitions include film, lectures and gallery tours by scholars in arts and design, art history, Afro-American studies and American studies and history.  

A screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” (1928) and short films will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 26, in UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. In Chaplin’s beloved classic, the Little Tramp hides in a circus tent to escape the clutches of the law and unwittingly becomes a clown sensation. Taken on by the ringmaster, the Tramp falls in love with a beautiful tightrope walker who spurns him for another. The doors open at 7 p.m.

Murray Zimiles, professor of art and design, SUNY Purchase, will give a talk titled “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: From the Synagogue to the Carousel, from the Sacred to the Secular” at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 28, at the Chazen. Zimiles will discuss the migration of East European Jewish artisans and how their woodcarving practices were transformed and secularized in the United States, and will compare rare photographs of synagogues with carousel horses.

Henry Drewal, UW-Madison Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and professor of Afro-American studies, will give a talk on “The Odyssey of an Image: Circus Snake Charmer Becomes African Water Goddess!” Drewal will trace the history of a famous circus snake charmer from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1880s. Her popular image traveled through Europe and America and then to Africa, where by 1900 it became a major icon for the water divinity called Mami Wata. Drewal’s lecture is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, at the Chazen.

Wilkins will give a talk at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 2. She will discuss the circus as inspiration for the visual arts as she guides visitors through both exhibitions. May 2 is also Gallery Night, which is organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; gallery hours will be extended to 8 p.m.

“Wondrously Wild and Wicked: Circus Day USA” is the theme for Wednesday, May 7, when Janet M. Davis, associate professor of American studies and history, University of Texas at Austin, will present a lecture and book signing at 7 p.m. Davis’s talk will explore the role of the circus in shaping modern American culture and society. Years ago, the arrival of a circus was a major community event. People watched the assembly of the ephemeral tented city, the free street parade, and the animal and human performers. Her book is titled “The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top.” Gallery hours will be extended that evening to 7 p.m.

Drop-in tours of “Ringmaster: Judy Onofrio and the Art of the Circus” and “Harry A. Atwell, Circus Photographer” will take place each Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. through June 24 at 3:30 p.m. Wilkins will lead the May 6 tour; others will be led by a docent.